Tuesday, September 14, 2021

grumble

  A problem of being a self-appointed culture critic is that the longer you hang around the planet breathing the air, the faster it seems your heroes seem to die. That’s a generational thing, your elders and your peers start to pass on, and your tribe is just a little smaller every few weeks. Of course, the cure for that sort of minor depression is getting new heroes, reading new artists, listening to music by younger musicians, and, most obviously, making more friends.  Iggy Pop is over 69 years old, and it’s an irony upon an irony that he enters the last year of his 6th decade of life on the same day we find out that Prince has passed away at the age of 57. Iggy survived the morbid predictions that insisted that he would be the next major edgy rock star to go, joining Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Jones, and others as having a bad end to an edgy life lived in the spotlight. Nihilism was at the core of his act, both as Stooges frontman and as a solo artist. 

It seemed that the fabled mixtures of teenage impulse and fantastic amounts of methamphetamines and heroin were willful tools he was using to describe life not just at the edge of existence but also, if he were lucky, a will to narrate the passage through the thick shroud of unbeing. It’s a classic conceit in modern arts that an artist’s demise confirms their greatness/genius/cutie-pie factor; what have you. It’s a species of pornographic thinking, and shame on us for egging it onward in the culture. However, something intervened in that cliche, and Pop has been one of the more interesting elder statesmen for some time, always worth a listen. We benefit from his persistence to remain creative, not to be too terribly sentimental about it. Still, Pop’s longevity improves the quality of my life by his example that you can continue to respond creatively, with imagination, to the short existence we’re allowed to have. Like Bowie, Prince was one of those people you assumed would be around for the final mile of the long haul, a genuinely gifted polymath who would make music into his dimmest twilight. From this fan’s view, what hurts the most is that we won’t get to hear the grander, more experimental adventures Prince would have had as a musician. A straight-ahead jazz album. A record of guitar blitzing? Serious classical endeavors? Movie soundtracks? Big Band Music? A blues thing? Reggae? A stage turn as Othello?

His androgyny/sex fiend persona aside, I marveled at the chameleon nature of his music, the jumping around from style to style. Unlike Bowie, equally eclectic in taste and output, there was a substantial musical virtuosity to Prince’s switching up and mashing up and fusing the elements of rock, fusion, Philly/Motown/Memphis/ soul, jazz, and the occasional bits of classical allusion. Though he never spoke much of his training, self-taught or schooled, he had as solid a grasp of the mechanics of music and controlled his virtuosity like it were a tool to be used judiciously, in service to the music. 


There was little that was excessive in his music, and I rather liked his singing, which was far from your traditional rock or soul voice; thin, reedy, nasal, limited in range and color, he still molded it convincingly over his melodies and lyrics, sounding wise, insinuating, dangerous, alluring, nearly any persona he wanted to get across. Anything seemed possible for him because he was spectacularly good at the varied projects he’d already finished and released.Alas, but no. This makes you want to pause a few moments and consider the breath you are taking at that instant and recognize that life is a gift we are given but don’t own. Embrace the days we have and do something with the hours while we have them.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

THE SEX PISTOLS ARE NOW ABOUT GETTING PAID.

According to The Guardian, two of the three surviving members of the  Sex Pistols (Steve Jones and PaulCook) have won a lawsuit they filed against SP singer Johnny Rotten (John Lydon). Lydon who was blocking their right to use Sex Pistol songs for a limited series that's being made about the band, maintaining that the other two needed his consent. The British court awarded Jones and Cook the right to use the iconic and anti-social tunes in what is termed a "majority rules" principle. Essentially, the other two surviving members did not require Lydon's consent to have access to the songs at issue.  We ought not to be surprised that a band famous for being young, angry, and contentious would eventually become quarrelsome in their waning years. Still, the dispute between the parties involved makes pondering about the glaring irony impossible to avoid. It was quite a thing when Gil Scott -Heron declared in 1971 that the revolution would not be televised. It gave us restless, agitated youth comfort to know that the Man would not win this fight. And now The Fucking Sex Pistols, the harbingers of the Judgement to Come against the soul-less corporate machine, have become merely another piece of intellectual property that is being made into a limited series for Disney, that anti-life capitalist Moloch that wears a Happy Face. If anyone ever wondered what Herbert Marcuse wrote about "repressive tolerance" was, this is it. Crudely put, the System tolerates to a degree those social forces that threaten it, assimilates their energy, and turns them into grist for the mill. Johnny Rotten complains about the perversion of the Sex Pistols legacy while Disney and other entities profit off his labors in brasher days. Rotten/Lydon still hasn't realized, it seems, that he sold out the second he signed a recording contract and a publishing deal. He was working for the Man all along. Young angry punk rockers who don't die young suffer the indignity of getting old, bloated, and cranky. This revolutionary contrarian has become the old man yelling, "get off my lawn."

Sunday, August 22, 2021

 Don Juan's Reckless Daughter - Joni Mitchell (Asylum)


Listeners have taken joy in Joni Mitchell's continual insistence on changing her musical approach, so it was not unusual that the release of Hissing of Summer Lawns was hailed, for the most part, a bold step towards personal and artistic growth. Nevertheless, while Hissing and her subsequent and less successful Hejira did indeed show Mitchell expanding herself to more adventurous motifs - broader song structures, an increasingly impressionistic lyric scan, jazz textures - the trend toward a more personalized voice has virtually walled her off from the majority of her fans. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, her new double record effort, takes the ground gained from the last two albums and converts it into a meandering, amorphous culmination of half-formed concepts. Musically, the stylistic conceit is towards jazz modernism, with several songs exceeding ten minutes in length as they ramble over Mitchell's vaguely comprehensible piano chords. She reveals a tendency to hit a strident chord and let the notes resonate and fade as she vocally ruminates over the lyrics - while her sidemen, Jaco Pastorious and Wayne Shorter from Weather Report, and guitarist John Guerin, do their best to add definition. 

The lyrics, in kind, are an impressionistic hodgepodge, a string of images, indecipherable references, and gutless epiphanies that needed a good pruning. While the more hard-nosed defenders may defend the latest with the excuse that a poet may express themselves in any way they see fit, one still has to question the worth of any effort to dissect Reckless Daughter the way one used to mull over Dylan albums. Though any number of matters that Mitchell chooses to deal with may have value to her audience - spiritual lassitude, the responsibilities of freedom, sexuality into Middle Ages - she does not supply anything resembling hooks, catchphrases, or access points, of ' reference to steady the voluminous diffusion of the stanzas. Instead, she gives them art, whether they like it or not. The paradox in Mitchell's idea has thrown craft well outside the window while measuring up to "Art" in the upper case. She has gone from being an artful songwriter to being merely arty. What is remembered is the artifice and gloss used to make this double record enterprise seem a higher caliber of music. 


Sunday, August 1, 2021

JOHN CAGE STOOD THERE (a performance fiction)


 


John Cage stood there for an hour saying nothing while holding the mike. Then he dropped the mike to the stage floor. There was an echoing boom as the mike hit the floorboards. The spotlight on Cage went dark, as did the subdued aisle lights in the auditorium. The exit signs went dark.

Cage remained on the stage, a lank outline of pure shade that appeared to swell up through the floorboards. The audience made no move to leave their seats. Another hour went by. Slowly the house lights came back up and revealed Cage still standing there, again holding the microphone he dropped before.

"Thank you," he said, his voice a cracked, reedy squeak. There was a warm round of applause.

As the applause subsided, someone yelled from the back of the hall, "ONE MORE TIME."


Cage smiled and then dropped the mike to the stage floor. There was a loud boom. The spotlight on Cage went dark, and then the house lights were shut off. It was a dark, blackened space. No one moved.

DEAD MALL

 


In future years the younger folks might be nostalgic as they reminisce about the supposed fun and convenience of down San Diego's Horton Plaza Shopping Center before it eventually became a dead mall, now being repurposed as office space for tech companies. 

The truth of the matter is that even in its prime, it was an alienated space, full of architectural distractions, detours, and dead ends that seemed designed to magnify your unease and increase your desire to escape your sense of uselessness by exhausting your credit limit and begging creditors for an increase in your credit line.

 I  worked there for several years as a bookseller and made my number one spot to see new movies. Over time you couldn't help by note the waning numbers of people coming to the Plaza, the number of stores advertising off-Holiday Sales with things up to 70 percent off, the closing of stores, and the draping of butcher paper over the display windows with a sad sign promising a new retailer coming in soon, watching the calendar pages fly away and noting again the stores were still vacant and that more stores had joined them.

Horton Plaza had become an empty series of angular paths, walkways, bridges to more locked up storefronts, a structural case of architectural schizophrenia where all the eaves, overhangs, arches, and such unusual twists cast deep, despairing shadows over the dead concrete, few have reason to walk.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

ONCE UPON A TIME... IN HOLLYWOOD

As of today, the question remains whether the former glory boy of independent American filmmaking will finish his career with one last film, rounding off his body of work with ten full-length motion pictures. Doubtless, he wants to go down in film history like Orson Wells or Preston Sturgis, writer-directors who have a short filmography that, though brief, highlights movies of extraordinary brilliance. 1.       I have not liked a Tarantino film since Kill Bill Vol.2 and regarded him as a spent talent. It seemed that he had used up all his good ideas early on and was bound to repeat them as he tackled one movie genre after another--2 Westerns, a WW2 movie, an exploitation film. 

It is not so much that repeating his stylistics is terrible by default; it's annoying, and I think lazy that the moves were so loud, protracted, and utterly, utterly predictable in the scheme of things. ONCE UPON A TIME... IN HOLLYWOOD, though, has all his virtues and little of his vices. The characters sound like they are talking to each other about things--jobs, love, bad luck, random stuff--rather than giving hammed-up, over-written self-announcing speeches to each other. The era and the pace are perfectly recreated, the music on the soundtrack is excellent--I think it was inspired to have what was on the AM top forty featured rather than the expected FM "underground" stuff. I mean, Jesus, I love that QT gave Paul Revere and the Raiders some love. Also, much appreciate the actor here is a B -Lister, a character actor trying to manage his demons and shortcomings and acquire an acting gig that he won't be embarrassed by.

 It is a big, appealing shaggy dog story. One of the best cast movies I've seen in a while. I was surprised how much I liked a movie by a director whose films I think are repetitive, overblown, and without any residue of charm. It's a Tarantino movie indeed, and their bits I found needless or excessive, but the plus side is that there is SO MUCH LESS of his bright-boy didacticism that it’s easy to mistake it for being flawless. If you want to call it that, the genius moves here is that QT decided to tell a story, or several stories, rather than be an auteur. This is only the second movie where I felt he was not trying to prove anything, the other one being Jackie Brown, his adaptation of Elmore Leonard's superlative novel Rum Punch. 

That is a movie I think film hounds will be returning to when they come to discuss this man's work. So far as his motive and meaning go, I am content that he regards the period as intrinsically exciting and figured out how to contrive an engaging "what if" tale with the particulars. Let us consider Mailer knocking off that grandiose third-person hat trick when he happened up Gary Gilmore. His decision to tell the story rather than grandstand was a sensible approach.QT's efforts to blue pencil much of the verbal dexterity of the dialogue was an equally shrewd move.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

PUNK

 


Punk had several meanings prior to it becoming a label for a music and fashion style representing a coopted idea of resistance and rebellion. None of those meanings were good or complimentary when I was a kid. If you called someone a punk you had to be ready to fight, and if you were called a punk, you had to defend yourself or slink away ashamed and humiliated in front of your peers. Punks were assholes, delinquents, sneaky, thieving, conniving, lying bastards no one else wanted to be around. They grew to be criminals, rapists, drug addicts and hobos. There was nothing admirable about them. In prison, to be sure, the word "punk" meant, as I understand it, a smaller, weaker male inmate who sexually services a larger, more dominant inmate. 

Not the kind of thing one aspires to be, I would think. Somewhere along the line the term was assimilated into the counterculture idea of resistance against the corporate-capitalist-military state, the -enemy -of -my -enemy -is- my- friend rationale. Some of us remember when Hells Angels were considered cool, and hip and Jefferson Airplane sang that we were all outlaws "in the eyes of Amerika..." Then Altamont happened and changed the view of the HAs, but it stops the definition of punk from changing and being adopted and adapted by any number of would-be tribes of rebels, whether poets, musicians, painters, performance artists or pretentious lay-abouts desiring a blunt, monosyllabic term to give themselves and their alleged and varied ethos. And like anything else that becomes central to rock music, the term is hollowed out entirely of whatever useful meaning it had and is now a marketing term and codified musical style that in these latter days inspires more parody than fear among the population.


Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Eagles take over the City Dump

Quit defending the Eagles! They’re simply terrible - Salon.com:


The first thing that one has to do is give the Eagles their due, which is their ability to write tunefully, maintain tight harmonies and sustain an impressive level of musicianship. To their credit, these guys have always had a sound that makes them stand out in a crowded field, and they've always sounded like a real band, not an assembly of hired professionals. Normally those would be items that would lead to being an additional 500-700 words of praise for a particular album or live performance, but I've always hated this band. They are distinct and professional the way Disney Products, especially Marvel Movies, are professional, which is to say their efforts are superbly assembled works composed of elements skillfully, artfully, cynically chosen for their capacity to appeal to a mass audience of males who have a self-righteous and self-pitying chip on their shoulder and the women who love all those misunderstood and misunderstood men. Don Henley's voice is a nasally and grainy combination of Rod Stewart and Neil Young and reduces the calculated pathos of the lyrics to an aggravating noise like the ice machine goes off next to the motel room you rented just when you're entering a select acre of nod. Their sense of telling sagas of heartbreak, stoicism in the face of a hard choice, and despairing about the end of innocence after the party balloons have shriveled and the last flake of cocaine has been wiped from the mirror and rubbed some last-gasper's gums are unsoulful, overwrought, overwritten, and overacted. 

Their narratives are goon show narcissisms that are designed to impress, not express; they skip the dramatic altogether and settle over the melodramatic. Theirs is the suicide-prone "code" of Hemingway, the arrogance that rather than cope, grow, move on with a life to which change, a significant change has inevitably come to , one instead nurtures the hurt privately, does not complain and carries on as before, exhibiting a pretense of "grace under fire" (Hemingway's coinage) while stewing in their own private hell of resentment, jealousy, anger, self-loathing and compensating arrogance in the conceit that their ability to take a punch, to take many blows to the head and to the ego, makes them a higher caliber of a human, male human, white male human, than the lesser masses who inhabit the planet. Everything about their message and sound--the guitar work that is too tasteful in country accents and too rubbery with the more rocking workouts--props up this multi-platinum hoax. I am very fond of Joe Walsh, having seen him a few times from my Detroit days when he played with the James Gang at area venues and festivals, but his personality seemed all but erased when he joined this egregious unit. His persona, a bohemian for whom there are no big deals and that what whatever travails and tragedies befall are likely because he made a decision that was ill-chosen and that life, such as it is despite the bad luck, is good so far ("Life's Been Good"), seemed an odd fit for this professionally pessimistic posse. His sense of humor and life-preserving irony couldn't keep them from absorbing Walsh into their uniform sense of weltschmerz. Even Joe's famously chunky brand of blues-rock guitar couldn't lift the band's music anymore. The truth of this band is plain: The Eagles blow.


The serious Eagles fan would come to the defense of this band--seemingly as much despised as they are loved by fans--and maintain that their cynicism, despair, and weariness were anything than the routine posturing of experience-glutted rock stars, the more being that they were artful and could write good song hooks and manage to keep their songs under a certain length. Granted, although a tune like "Hotel California" , paced at a tortoise crawl and it is slow in duration, is a notable exception, notable in that it contains everything that is objectionable to this band a collective projection of the zeitgeist. The lyrics are laden in downcast metaphors where the secreted meanings are grandiosely proclaimed, exhibiting a "you know what I mean " vagueness that is a bullet to interests in whatever forbidden knowledge these musicians gleaned from their adventures at the edge of their own limitations.  An amazingly successful rock band with some indisputably talented musicians, the Eagles are a band I never cared about. Even in their best songs they seemed, smug in the depths of despair, depression and bad-luck stories their songs evoked. Tuneful, well crafted, laden with nicely arranged guitar textures and incidental instrumentation, the sweetly harmonized lyrics were the first-rate evocation of bankrupt imaginations trying their best to out-bottom the rest of rock and roll's iconic desolation row residents. In meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, there is the tradition of having a leader "qualify" , that is, telling their tale of what it was like, what happened and what it's like now. The telling, or testimonial, if you will, would normally contain some sordid tales of their past that their powerlessness over alcohol led them to, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly; the point is to make the listener understand the inevitable destruction this path results unless the alcoholic or drug addict has their moment of clarity and grasps a solution, which are the components of the "what happened" and "what its like now" parts of the formula. There is the habit of some members with years of recovery (such as it might be for them personally) who eschew the solution and instead tell one horrible anecdote after another; this is not generally appreciated by other group members seeking confirmation of the hope that is supposed to be contained in the rooms where those meetings are held. This turns testimony in a drunkalogue and the effect is of someone who takes inordinate pride in the horrible things they have done--each instance of bad luck, lying, theft, jail time, divorce, traffic accidents, job loss,  sexual misbehavior become like bullet points on a resume. 

Whether they intended to or done, those who overshare such things wallow in the gloom and their words become pointless. So with the Eagles, who have spent decades writing songs as if they are the only witnesses to the end of the world, a world where only they are citizens worth listening to. Theirs was a music akin to an old car with a great, shiny new paint job; attractive surface gleam, noisy and tired under the hood. For all their gold records and fanatical fan base, they have proven to be even more tiresome than U2. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Bah!

The Atlantic a month ago ran a pig-headed bit of snark-slamming prog rock as "The Whitest Music Ever, "a catchy bit of clickbait that uses "white," as in a race, as a required pejorative to make its points. I am sorry to say that I took the bait, and it messed up my emotional equilibrium. Hardly a fan of prog rock--I've been accused of being the John Wayne of American rock critics --but there have been more than a few artists who make complex, rock-oriented sounds that I think are enjoyable and perfectly defensible. First, the article advances on the premise that music that was created and performed by, let us say, 99 1/2 percent white musicians is awful and unnatural from the get-go, which is ridiculous. The characterization of Prog Music as "the whitest music ever" is racist on the face of it, and The Atlantic is too thick between the ears, too dimwitted to recognize the irony. It's an argument someone cannot credibly sustain. David Weigel, a Slate politics writer and a prog fan, wrote a history of the genre a few years ago with The Show that Never Ends and makes a point of showing how British bands came to incorporate classical ideas into their original compositions. Simply (too simply in this squib), it was a generation of players rediscovering their own musical heritage, drawing inspiration from composers they heard on the radio. The piece is intellectually bankrupt. Anyone wanting to read a rather more level-headed appraisal of History of Prog would do well to pick up Weigel's book.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI

Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away last month, age 101 years, and what we’ve lost is a great American voice.  His poems were written in a wonderfully amorphous American idiom, his rhythms were light, quick, jazz-like, his patois seemed to come from anywhere in 50 states.  His poems were vocalizations of the man on the street who appears to be always next to you at the end of the bar, on the subway car, the city bus, in line for a hot dog at a ball game, the next guy holding a picket sign in front of city hall, speaking with a tone sturdy but quickly uttered, starting in one  area with observation but morphing through the chain of associations to  areas you didn’t know were related in any way.  You read him, you listened to him read, you were never sure where the poems would go but you knew there would be a point, an irony, a moral certainty tempered with good humor.

 Due to his being based in San Francisco and proximity to the city’s edgier literary community, Ferlinghetti is often grouped with the generation of Beat writers and poets who flourished in the 1950s. He balked at the inclusion, remarking that he was “…the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.” Even so, it’s arguable that he did more than anyone else to usher in the Beat Era in the 50s with his Pocket Poets, Series printed under the City Lights imprint. The first in the series was own book 1955 poetry collection Pictures of the Gone World, with subsequent volumes introducing the world to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Anne Waldman, Frank O’Hara, Gregory Corso, and many other voices, Beats, and non-beats, who poked holes in the quilt of Eisenhower’s America. In 1956 the publication of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems found publisher Ferlinghetti in court on obscenity charges, due to Ginsberg’s frank and comparatively specific depiction of homoerotic content. With the aid of the ACLU, Ferlinghetti won the case and continued to publish and nurture writers from the margin’s society with his press and bookstore and extended his own writing further into the soul of America, a great country that has done remarkable things, but which could do far better. He was writing that he was waiting for the promise of freedom and justice for all to come to be fact, not fantasy, his activism revealed a character of that wouldn’t abide by the idea that the   Artist was at a remove from the public, inoculated against controversy. He knew art wasn’t a commodity to insulate citizens from the harsher facts of war, racism, poverty; his poems didn’t blind us with banality. Art was not a thing to make us “ feel good”; it was a way to make us feel, fully and painfully if need be. It was a tool to nag, prod, provoke, elicit a response, to get readers out of their seats and into the streets to work for that Better Day. Many an effective activist from the era had their moral compass fine-tuned and enhanced by the effusive, chatty, astute poems of Ferlinghetti and the quarrelsome songs of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti thought about things he liked and even more about things that bothered him, that bothered millions. He was a worldly man, and he was the man who lived in the upstairs apartment, who owned the shop on the corner, he was a citizen poet waiting for and working toward the Better Day.  His persona was a sublimely self-effacing Everyman, less grandiose and bombastic than Whitman, wittier than others by far, the man in a government waiting his turn at the DMV, for jury duty, and while he waits, he muses about what else he and the rest of us are waiting for besides for our numbers to be called.

I am waiting for my case to come up   

and I am waiting

for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone

to really discover America

and wail

and I am waiting   

for the discovery

of a new symbolic western frontier   

and I am waiting   

for the American Eagle

to really spread its wings

and straighten up and fly right

and I am waiting

for the Age of Anxiety

to drop dead

and I am waiting

for the war to be fought

which will make the world safe

for anarchy

and I am waiting

for the final withering away

of all governments

and I am perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of wonder

--“I Am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (from  Coney Island of the Mind, 1958).  

 Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the greatest Public poet America has in the second half of the 20th century. Poet, novelist, playwright, travel writer, bookseller, and publisher of the revered City Lights Books press, Ferlinghetti wasn’t a dry academic composing intangible lines of the verse about impossible metaphysics. His feet were on the ground along with those of his fellow citizens, trudging and grunting along that road, a man with an an unshakeable belief that the world can be made better even although a   “perfect one” seems beyond our reach. He wrote to his reader’s ear, seeming less to intone from the deadness of the page and more to speak to you directly.  “In Goya’s Greatest Scenes”, one of his best-known poems from his landmark 1958 poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind we hear the unique voice again, leaning over to our ear and remarking sotto voce:

In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see

                                           the people of the world   

       exactly at the moment when

             they first attained the title of

                                                             ‘suffering humanity’   

          They writhe upon the page

                                        in a veritable rage

                                                                of adversity   

          Heaped up

                     groaning with babies and bayonets

                                                       under cement skies   

            in an abstract landscape of blasted trees

                  bent statues bats wings and beaks

                               slippery gibbets

                  cadavers and carnivorous cocks

            and all the final hollering monsters

                  of the

                           ‘imagination of disaster’

            they are so bloody real

                                        it is as if they really still existed

 

    And they do

 

                  Only the landscape is changed…

 

This works as a mast  

Lawrence Ferlinghetti is in that tradition of the public poet, no less than Vachel Lindsay or the wonderfully expansive Whitman; less a man to complain about how the world doesn't fit comfortably around the skin he was born in, or muse long and serially on fragments of memory and half recalled cliches that never crystallize as a perception. His poems a force of personality that eschews introspection and opts instead to verbalize, extol, berate, rant, and rave in a lyric vein at once lyric, cranky, ecstatic, lustful, and very much in love with the senses that bring him the full force of the beauty and ugliness that is life. Ferlinghetti was not a ruminator, a worrier, an introvert, a sad soul contemplating many shades of despair. He didn’t decorate the walls of his inner life with gloom. There is no melancholic wallpaper in the world the poet finds himself in, there is no metaphysics of gloom and regret.  We need to recall that one of his poetry collections was titled How to Paint Sunlight. Not that Ferlinghetti's poems are bluster or weakly transpired musings on a beauty obscured urban density; his lines are confident, sure, idiom matching rhythm, not lapsing into a self-parody of hip argot except when he deigned to do so. His images are fresh and electric, encompassing emotions and the consequence of things are done to seek truth, beauty, a reason to celebrate the fragile miracle that is life.


There is little in the way of introspection, and that, I think, is the secret of his endearing popularity, and why his poems remain readable decades after the Beat craze has passed on into history. These are poems that like a good friend, a very good friend, who talks to you at the bar and pokes you in the shoulder, the man who would not let you get away with lying to yourself, the second opinion you constantly get, like it or not, that is a crude but freshly phrased thing we can call the truth, of a sort. It is, I think, a voice attached to an imagination that realizes that there are not enough years in any lifespan to not live fully, senses engaged with the raw stuff of existence.

These poems are jazzy, a crafted idiom that rings with the swinging chain of associations that cut through reams of rhetoric and regulation and get to the pulsing heart of the matter, birth, sex, death, joy, sorrow, glee, calamity. It all hurts, it all bring sensations we don't want, but this is a man who rolls with the punches know when to duck, writes as though he's astounded that he's still drawing a breath and walking still without a crutch or cane, that he has a voice to speak words of yet new seductions to come or already underway. It's worth noting that there was a selected poems edition of his work published in the 80s called Endless Life, which included a section of newer works, including a long piece that served as the collection's title.

What interests me isn't so much the quality of the poem but the  concern it expresses, to stay engaged with the doings of citizens he shares the planet with, to keep doing what a poet should be doing at all times when they choose to poke their muse and write in those irregular line breaks that is most people's idea of what poetry is; even as he ages and friends die and institutions and personalized traditions come to an end, the world goes on with things to do, people to know, controversies to become a part of. The conversation doesn't end until the tongue can no longer flutter about, the eyes cannot see and the mind cannot parse.

. I am signaling you through the flames.
The North Pole is not where it used to be.
Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.
Civilization self-destructs.
Nemesis is knocking at the door.
What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?
The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.
If you would be a poet, create works capable
 of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times,
 even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman,
you are Poe,
you are Mark Twain,
you are Emily Dickinson
and Edna St. Vincent Millay,
 you are Neruda and Mayakovsky
and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American,
you can conquer the conquerors
with words....

From Poetry as Insurgent Art by Lawrence Ferlinghetti  

The first time I saw Lawrence Ferlinghetti was during a pilgrimage to San Francisco with two other writer friends of mine in the mid-1970s. The three of us( Steve Esmedina, David Zielinski, and this guy)-- were eager to garner some literary authenticity by visiting the places where famous scribes read. City Lights in North Beach was our first stop, and it was something of a surprise when we walked into the crowded shop, to see the Ferlinghetti behind the front counter chatting with customers, answering the phone and ringing up sales. The last time I saw the poet was at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla, 2005, where I was working. Ferlinghetti had just published a new book, Americus Book 1, something of a continuous, epic-length poem, which he described as

 "part documentary, part public pillow-talk, part personal epic--a descant, a canto unsung, a banal history, a true fiction, lyric and political," combining "universal texts, snatches of song, words or phrases, murmuring of love or hate . . . that haunt our nocturnal imagination."

Whatever this turns out to be, it was an inspired summing up of the spiritual state of affairs of America, a bittersweet and often comic recollection of the poet’s long journey and long life on the front lines of culture and politics. He was the featured poet at the 2005 Border Voices Poetry Fair at San Diego State University, an event organized by poet and journalist Jack Webb. D.G.Wills Books previously hosted Beat poets Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and Ted Joans, and Wills had the idea that having Ferlinghetti read at the bookstore would be a fitting and important addition to the roster of poets and writers who had read in the past. Wills contacted Webb and arranged, with Ferlinghetti’s assent, to have the Maestro read at D.G.Wills Books following his appearance at San Diego State.

To be expected, it was a wild and crowded scene, every seat in the bookstore filled with, poets, fans, the merely curious. The front and side doors of the shop were open, an outdoor PA was mounted, and chairs were set up for attendees unable to sit inside. It was a crowd nearing three hundred.  It was a cramped situation where everything that could go wrong didn’t. Except for one thing, to be sure, there’s always one thing that goes askew. In the flurry of overseeing the setup and directing the volunteer staff, Wills forgot to disconnect the business phone.  Twenty or so minutes into the reading, Ferlinghetti is reading an especially lush passage from Americus, the audience is leaning toward him to heart, there is a pause, an intake of breath, Ferlinghetti begins to read again. Then the phone rings. Wills was at the end of the store’s front counter and pounced on the phone before it could peal again. Ferlinghetti didn’t miss a beat.

“Is this Manny’s Bar and Pool Hall?” he asked. The accent was East Coast, New York perhaps, American. The audience inside and out gave a nice laugh. Lawrence Ferlinghetti grinned and continued to read, a man who will continue to be read in bars, pool halls, bus stops, libraries, quoted in academic papers, and by busboys and waitresses.


Sunday, March 21, 2021

GENERIC

 

Genres may or may not be vanishing--I am a believer in the cultural dialectic which would have old genres collide and synthesize into new genres, starting the cycle all over again--but I do find it somewhat intriguing to consider the critic who is somewhat behind the times and yet stays in the argument. Criticism considers the continuity and discontinuity of what consumers are amusing, enlightening or dulling themselves with; the critic who is slightly out of step is likely to be the one to puncture the more ridiculous claims of the most recent claimants of the spotlight . The older critic,the fogie still operating on values somewhat frayed at the edges, is often the one to think beyond the latest raft of buzz phrases. Genres are likely to remain with us, as humans love give things names, and there is something in the spirit of fanhood that desires that distinctions be made and claimed. They simply can't be wished away because a New Yorker Official Smart Person thinks they should. 

"History" didn't end , as Francis Fukiyama said it would in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man; his thesis was that with the end of fall of Communism, history as a record of war , strife and struggle, would end, and as relations between nations relaxed, the world would transcend ideologies and other divisions and create a more harmonies planet motivated by cooperation. The complete triumph of the free market.That never happened, and the world is arguably more problematic than it's ever been. History is still with is, and the concept of genres will remain with us as well. I don't think musicians are thinking about "post-genre" concepts when they make music, as creation is a psychological process as much as a physical one. In such the act of creation, the artist (all kinds of artists) are thinking, I believe, less about what rules they can ignore or what boundaries they can transgress and more about what they can make use of, whatever it may happen to me, however unlike, dissimilar, glaringly awkward the styles, the parts of the creation, may seem to be. 

Their goal is bring things together, whatever influences them and strikes their fancy and the appropriate it, twist it , change it, synthesize to something new, a work of art in a representation that hadn't existed before. But whatever the result, critically praised or damned, the object remains connected to history and the genres from which it attempted to abandon. This new work gets identified, described, classified, catalogued, it gets a name , it becomes a genre who's particulars are known and yet malleable within each work the artist creates. It's an old story; in music, musicians have been genre jumping for decades. One of my first albums was EAST/WEST by the Butterfield Blues Band , in which an inter-racial blues band took on Indian-raga/Modal jazz improvisational methods , an achievement influenced by another boundry violating innovator John Coltrane, who stepped out of his bop lineage to change the way jazz was performed. The examples are endless. "Post genre", ironically, seems to be a genre itself.

We have to face the fact that as long as musicians continue to , by choice, write and record songs that fall into specific categories and sub categories--blues rock, metal, rap-rock, fusion, reggae, ska, country-rock, the whole shooting match--genres as we've always understood are not dead. There is an obsession that filters through the academic and critical universe that likes to announce that some particular form or medium is dead because times have gotten so strange and so many things have converged and technology has gotten so pervasive that genre distinctions no longer apply and that we are now free , implying we have been liberated from some horrible tyranny; this kind global pronouncements have little to do with what's happening in the trenches, as it seems consumers like their genres --with the implication that there are many genres they happen to enjoy for their differences from other forms of music they happen to like-- and artists, young and otherwise, strive to maintain the various traditions meaningful and moving while at the same time perverting the stylistic limits of the respective song forms by tweaking it with musical ideas from other areas. This, of course,creates new genres that will have cool names to describe their distinction. Nothing has died. However well specific approaches fare in the marketplace, it's not accurate to maintain we are in some area that has transcended genres. They are, in fact, thriving.


Friday, March 19, 2021

Jack DeJohnette's "Special Edition" (1980)

 Special Edition -Jack DeJohnette (ECM)

Considering the line-up on this disc- -drummer DeJohnette,, alto saxist Arthur Blythe and tenor saxist and bass clarinetist David Murray, and bassist Peter Warren--you would have thought it would have been a significant breakthrough record, one of those legendary sessions that chart new directions in the art. This ensemble, though, had no intentions of blazing any new trails, as the music stays safely within the boundaries of what we’ve heard before. He sustains the confident tone through the wildest stretches of his soloing, an unpredictable style that finds nuance and unexpected inroads in a solo space. 

Blythe, on the other hand, exploits the alto sax for all it's worth, often changing moods from the whimsical and lyrical to the soulfully anguished. DeJohnette plays solidly under their playing, rumbling like Philly Joe Jones one moment, accentuating hard-rock bass·drums another, and continual-ly fragmenting and piecing back together rhythms as the music flow onward. 

Bassist Warren seems the odd man. This isn't to say that this record lacks spark. Special Edition is fresh and lively, highlighting first·rate at the hands of Blythe and Murray. Throughout the disc, their instruments join in a variety of harmonic settings-the fusion-tinged "One For Eric," the rhythm and blues riff of "Zoot Suit," the ethereal texturizing on John Coltrane‘s tone poem "Indian-and at key points branch out to establish their own personalities. Murray, alternating between tenor sax and bass clarinet, offers a strong, out here, maintaining a fairly conservative attitude as he backs the others dutifully, which is to say, with vim, vigor, vitality.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

AMANDA GORMAN

Well, Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman for her composition "The Hill We Climb" is preparing a collection of her writing for publication with a major publisher with a tour to follow; she's garnered a deal to work as a fashion model. How is she as a poet? Honestly, it is at least as good as the best work of an advanced poetry writing class. It would be a solid B if the grading criteria were based solely on my admittedly dreadful preferences when it comes to poets. It's okay, merely okay, held back by its many flights of high and hopeful rhetoric that start to chafe as the piece progresses to the end. Yes, it sounds like a graduation speech given by the High School Creative Writing Club president. 

 On another matter entirely, some aged experimentalists have the idea that the Avant guard they grew on and within is where History of all manner ought to have ended. In the meantime, events, and tastes, as anyone can claim to understand them, have evolved, or at least moved on, if in circles, and there remains the idea of the Public Poet and The Poem of the Moment.

Social constructions, perhaps, but people seem to need them and believe in them and find some reason to make the make coffee in the morning because of them and dozen another reassuring albeit banal comforts. "The Hill We Climb" is a Poem of the Moment, not to my liking entirely, and Gorman is a Public Poet by any definition you care to give the term. I suspect she will transcend the Poet appellation and evolve into a (C.Wright) Millsian power player in the guise of Pure Celebrity, an influencer. Or maybe she'll become a decent writer of finely considered prose. We'll see if time allows.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

ROYAL PAIN

 

So this sudden mess concerning the estrangement of Harry and Meghan from the  Royal Family, as revealed to our National Confessor Oprah? The needless distraction of the moment,  and it's likely this will find the dustbin of history  by the coming weekend. It's hard to worry about the personal sanity and happiness of exquisitely well people no matter the issues at hand--racism, sexism, tastes in music and high sugar power drinks--when the rest of the world has to go to work in the morning and fret in our off moments about rent, groceries, credit card balances. I have cared nothing about the  Royal Family, a state supported assemblage of symbolically  useless humanity who serve no useful or humane purpose, though it seems both millions of British subjects love these lavished upon wastrels and the UK Press needs them to keep their Fleet Street gossip rags and websites abuzz. Something fouler here , buried perhaps not so deep in  the population psyche, an element far more odious and evil than the simple excuse that national obsession  is simply a way for  citizens to  celebrate an institution uniquely British. The  Royals at the end of any day they live through, are a symbol of what was the British Empire, a long running foulness that had racism, xenophobia and genocide at the base of any high-minded philosophy that was used to justify the centuries old practice of subjugating non white populations. It isn't just a puppet show they're putting on here, it's closer to Civil War reenactment, were the issue of racism was close to the surface, in front of the mind,  a wish deferred for the time being. That this democracy allows this institution to thrive in full knowledge that it represents the worst sins of the Empire to this day is flabbergasting. Was anyone  really outraged, really shocked that the family was stressed as to how dark the forthcoming Archie's skin tone might be?

Sunday, January 31, 2021

'LIVE AT THE BEE HIVE"-- Cifford Brown , Sonny Rollins cook on the band stand

 

Live at the Bee Hive - Clifford Brown and Max Roach (Columbia)

 Live at the Beehive is a wild and wooly document of the excitement of the jam session. Recorded in a Chicago bar in 1955, the audio quality  is not the best, as the sound is muddy and flat, there's an excess of surface noise, and the continual buzz of customers ordering drinks and talking through the best solo moments are sn annoyance. The music from the bandstand easily overcomes and transcends the grouchy ambience. The collective sound is lively, rambunctious and packs the punch of a chain-mail glove.The several extended forays of the late Clifford Brown are especially exciting. Before his sudden death, Brown had established himself as possibly the premier trumpet player on any jazz scene, and this record, especially the workout on Sonny Stitt's "Cherokee," reminds us of his incandescent powers as a soloist. Clifford possessed a big, fat sound, and was alternately lyrically sublime and frenetically rapid in his choice of note. Bee Hive is a handy display case of this man's brilliance. The other players hold their own as well. The searing sax work 'of Sonny Rollins and Nicky Hill, the shimmering guitar of Lou Blevins and the pulsating time kept by pianist Billy Wallace and drummer Max Roach is featured. Audio quality is ragged, which is to  be expected, but these things are remedied and the music proceeds, quickly regain momentum. Live at the Bee Hive exists as an example of superb musicians just flat-out playing their  hearts out.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Capsule reviews from 1980: SHAMING MAHOGONY RUSH, GENTLE GIANT and PETER ALSOP

What's Next-
Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush (Columbia) T

The story goes that a young Frank Marino freaked out on bad acid some years ago, and after being given a guitar by his doctors as part of his recovery therapy, he was soon playing exactly like the deceased Jimi Hendrix despite the fact that he had previously never touched the instrument. Marino said in early interviews that he believed the spirit of Jimi had entered him during his recovery, and that he had been changed from being just another teenage doper into someone who would carryon what Hendrix had begun. So the story goes. What you can say about Marino, whether you swallow' that crock or not, is that he does sound like Hendrix. But instead of "carrying on" the guitar stylistics and advancing the art of electric guitar, Marino's playing is somewhere in the late 60s, fast and furious, full of echo, feedback , and, unlike Hendrix 's occasional moments of bluesy lyricism, utterly graceless. The problem is singular: Marino and Mahagony Rush are incapable of writing a decent riff, a failing that results in Marino ejaculating pud-pounding solos over the material like a meat and potatoes slob drowning the most expensive plate at the Top Of The Cove in a comeuppance of ketchup. Although one has to concede Marino's adeptness, his style becomes wearisome. In the end, What's Next,their newest record, seems aimed at the audience who've turned Hendrix into a deity and refused to admit that better guitarists have come along. 

_____

Civilian -
 Gentle Giant (Columbia)

Back in the days when classically-derived rock was all the rage among the small enclaves of pop dilettantes, Gentle Giant set themselves apart from the pack with the unusual continuity and stringent formalism of. their playing. In recent years, though, Giant has been changing their sound, gearing it toward a more commercial appeal so that they might attract a larger audience who might otherwise dismiss them as mere technical tricksters.- Unfortunately, what they sound like on Civilian, their latest record, is merely a watered down rendition of their old self, bordering almost on self parody. "The material stays safely within the limits of what the average tolerate - there is little risk-taking here - and except for some pleasant ensemble bits here and there, nothing really gels moving. Also, Derek Shulman's singing - a distraught, emasculated whine - has never been my idea of great crooning, and the lyrics, trapped in the aprioric existential murk of alienation and all, amount to nothing more than in articulated pout. Words such as these are enough to make one want to give the linger, incessantly mewling about a world he didn't ask to be born into, a good swift kick in the pants. And not necessarily in the seat. 

_____

Draw The Line -Peter Alsop (Flying Fish)

 

If this were 1967, al an anti· war or Civil Rights march, and if I were 17, 'dad in khaki, stoned beyond what's reasonable in public, and still believing we could have world peace through the right mixture of drugs and indiscriminate sex, I would think that folkie Peter Alsop . was a totally bitchen guy. But this is 1980, and though my politics haven', changed all that much, I think most of us learned the lesson that the world won't be a better place through wishful thinking and pamphlet politics. Alsop , though, seems to exist quite happily in an airless vacuum . He 's what used to be called a  "topical" songwriter, and though the things he chooses to sing about - the innate greed principal of capitalism, the horrors of nuclear energy,  labor songs, feminisms' liberation of males from the breadwinner role - you find him to be so politically "correct" that you'd like to punch him out. Not that I find anything particularly disagreeable with Alsop's world view. Rather, Alsop gets on my nerves because of his expression, which is didactically self righteous , s hallow and humorous to only an audience of like-minded politico who already know the punchlines. And as a propagandist, he lacks the needed ability to turn up with the stirring turn of phrase . This man is not Phil Ochs, not Dylan, not Dave Van Ronk, not Buffy St. Marie. He is Peter Alsop, an insufferable little snit, a profoundly depressing experience. What else can you expect from a man who probably won't play in any state that hasn't ratified the ERA? 


(Originally in The UCSD Daily Guardian)